L’Amour à la Moulin Rouge
Extracts from the novella Yksin (‘Alone’, 1890). Introduction by Jyrki Nummi
After dining at the Duval on the Left Bank I take the same route back and drop in at the Café Régence to flick through the Finnish papers they have there.
I find my familiar café almost empty. The waiters are hanging about idly, and the billiard tables are quiet under their covers. The habitués are of course at home with their families. Anyone who has a friend or acquaintance is sharing their company this Christmas Eve. Only a few elderly gentlemen are seated there, reading papers and smoking pipes. Perhaps they’re foreigners, perhaps people for whom the café is their only home, as for me.
A little way off at the other end of the same table is a somewhat younger man. He was there when I came in. He’s finished his coffee and appears to be waiting. He’s restless and keeps consulting his watch. An agreed time has obviously passed. He calms himself and lights a cigarette. A moment later I can see a woman through the glass door. She’s hurrying across the street in front of a moving bus and running straight here. Now the man notices her too, and he cheers up and signals to the waiter for the bill. The woman slips through the door and goes straight across to him. They altercate for a moment, come to an understanding and depart hand in hand.
Imagine: there might be a certain person you were waiting for thus. Just think – it might be her, it might be her you were waiting for now. Looking neither to the right nor the left, she’d be hurrying along the boulevard, she’d turn off at the Opera to come this way. Now she’d be over there by that little open market place, La Place du Théâtre Français, waiting for the traffic to go by, to let her cross. I can’t see her – she’s behind that fountain….
‘Evening. You here on your own too?’
The man with his hand on my shoulder is a Finnish acquaintance, someone I’ve occasionally met here before.
‘Oh, hello. So how are things?’
I don’t enjoy his company much, and he’s got nothing of interest in the way of news. He knows no more than the newspapers know – that back in Finland things are looking bad, that there’s talk of our being deprived of our own postage stamps and our own money. It’s truly unpleasant news, and we both shake our heads and sigh. Also, what he says reminds me that there are Fennophiles and Swedophiles back home, and that just now they’re competing for posts. He’s a Fennophile and the Swedophiles are plotting against him.
We’ve nothing much else in common, and we each disappear behind our newspapers.
‘Well, oh!’ he says suddenly. ‘A big engagement here.’
‘So who’s that?’ I ask without interrupting my reading.
He hands me the paper, where I read a front-page announcement in large letters.
‘Is that so?’ I hear myself saying aloud.
‘You knew the Hjelm family, didn’t you? Who’s this Toivo Rautio? Is he one of the Ostrobothnian Rautios?’
‘Him I certainly don’t know.’
‘She’s made a quick catch, that girl. I didn’t really know her, apart from having seen her about. Hellishly attractive. I’ve seen her at the theatre, and sometimes she made quite a splash on the Esplanade with her brother.’
‘You off already?’
‘Got to meet a friend.’
Somewhere far down the street I can see the long row of gas streetlights merging. I hear the rattle of wheels and the clatter of horses’ hooves. In front of a shop window an iron curtain plummets down. A whole gable-end is traversed by large brass letters reading Hôtel du Louvre. A large building on the left is pitch-dark, black, a gloomy hulk. There’s an illuminated clock face on some column. Its hands are joined.
Now, in Anna’s room, the two of them will be sitting there on her little sofa. There’ll be no candle in the room. The only light will be what’s coming in from the hall, through the half-open door. If she came out her forelock would be disarrayed, and her cheeks would be flushed.
I walk and walk without considering where I’m going… In the middle of some square, at the edge of a fountain, there’s a group of slimy, greenish water-sprites: human heads with fish-tails. They glisten with wet, and lit by the streetlights they seem to be jeering and sneering.
Where on earth am I off to? That’s the Seine bridge over there, and that gable’s the Chamber of Deputies. It’s La Place de la Concorde! And I live in Montmartre.
A carriage wheel coming up behind me grazes my sleeve. I’ve just missed being knocked down. The coachman gives me an angry growl.
Oh well, Anna, if you don’t give a damn, neither do I!
And I feel threatened by the evening of my departure, and it begins to weigh on me more the closer I get to Montmartre. I rapidly cross squares and skirt along black-shadowed walls. Well, thank God it’s clear now, at last! Good that the last thread’s been broken, once and for all. No resistance now from the old roots! I’ll thrust them into new soil! I’ll strike hard, make the ground resound – make the trunk shed its old bark!
But what tomfoolery it is, all that! An announcement’s been put in the paper. And how often did we two jeer at those announcements together! All it needs is an announcement of her brother’s engagement, right next to it, in equally large letters. Perhaps there is one! How moving that both brother and sister…! And the wedding would be on the same day, of course!
And, of course too, there was no point in their saying anything to me. Why bother! ‘He’ll see it in the paper!’ They, including, presumably, the brother and the mother, are all naturally delighted with the new son-in-law.
I’ve been walking the Rue Blanche, which winds its way between chilly-looking buildings. Suddenly, at the top of the street ahead of me, up on the slope of Montmartre, is, though I’d forgotten its existence, Le Moulin Rouge. It’s glowing more red than ever. Its red sails, outlined by little electric lights, swing round slowly and invitingly, signalling into the distance. Red lights are flickering in the windows, and below, between the mill’s jambs, the door’s also red.
People are hurrying there from all sides. Individual pedestrians and whole groups are rushing to the Mill, coming from the boulevards and the neighbouring streets. Carriages are stopping one after another in front, then hurrying quickly off to make way for the others. The Mill’s nether region is sucking in and swallowing an unbroken file. They saunter in confidently, happily, knowing the way well, laughing – men and women, as depicted on a church wall, where a joyful crowd dances along the broad highway that leads through a huge gateway into Hell.
That’s where I’ll go too – yes, there – and spend Christmas Eve. How daft of me not to have been there before! Idiot that I am, I’ve walked almost bitterly past this funfair. And crept like some miserable hunched Puritan up the narrow circular staircase to my sixth-floor room in the kingdom of heaven. And why? And to what end?
I hang about in front of the place, watching the passers-by. Through a carriage door pops a woman’s head and knee, and a small foot touches the pavement. Her silks rustle, and a tiny velvet hat sets off her hair.
‘Oh! Oh! Comme c’est chic!’ comes a shout from the crowd outside.
I’m wondering whether to go along or not. What would I actually be doing in there? But a gendarme urges me either to go away or go in. In the doorway I can hear fragments of the dancers’ rhythms, and I feel dragged in almost against my will.
I’m at the top of the staircase, which broadens out and goes down onto the dance floor. It recalls long-forgotten tales from the Thousand and One Nights about underground parties, golden castles and crystal palaces inside the mountains – with no known approaches, but where ‘Open Sesame’ provides an entrance.
Provocative paintings adorn the ceiling above me. Streamers and banners are hanging everywhere, slightly swaying. I see rocky caves, green forests, and at first glance don’t notice that the walls are partly covered with mirrors, partly with frescoes. I can’t make out what’s real and what’s depicted. I see long colonnades and numerous electric lights.
The people milling on the dance floor seem to be occupying an expansive invisible arena. They stretch away, smaller and smaller. They heave and billow about to the music, swaying here, swaying there, in the flow of the waltz. The smooth sides of the silk hats shine and glitter, and the eye’s diverted here and there by white collars, cravats, bare shoulders – or a woman’s neck lingers flirtatiously for a mere moment, whirls round and instantly disappears in the crowd. The music strikes me as melancholy, and a sudden depression grips my heart. I seem to be weakening. I feel weary, my legs tremble. I could almost weep. But above the general buzz shrill hoots of joy break out, dissolving to tinkling laughter. The couples circle round, clutching each other, men and women, breast to breast, almost as one being. Caps are on the backs of heads, heels are in the air, white skirts flash under black ones, a head-high kick reveals a little silk shoe and a red sock above the knee…
The atmosphere’s warm and fervid. The scent of it wafts up in dense waves… sweat laced with perfume… like smoke from an oven of burning human lusts.
I go down and mingle with the crowd. I see the flashing eyes and sense rustling silk, soft arms and shapely shoulders caressing me as they pass by.
I wander from one end of the room to the other, lingering among the dancing groups, trying to concentrate on details among those supple movements of hands and legs, waists and throats.
And for the first time in my life I feel a desire to throw myself into life completely, to taste all that the world can offer fully. I want to let myself go, to glide over the charming greased surface, to be bewitched and intoxicated. And I’m no longer afraid of waking up. Let this world take me, let this Paris squeeze me to death, as long as it first caresses me and carries me in its arms. I’ve got money, I can arrange my own wedding, can’t I? – pay the costs of my honeymoon! Go with the flow, keep afloat above the waterfall I’ll flip my cap in goodbye – to my non-existent friends, my country, its peaceful shores, its alder groves, birch trees, aspens and shady thickets. And I shan’t listen to the waterfall’s roar down below, death’s no threat to me!
I’ll not be sorry for myself any more either! I too have the right to live! I want to enjoy life before my blood goes cold and I ice up in the onset of old age. This evening I want, myself, to kiss and hug, and make up for years and years of vexation.
This atmosphere’s gradually getting my blood up. I’m greedily breathing its voluptuousness. My eyes are getting confident and bold, I’m beginning to get the feel of the place and take note: I’m beginning to choose a figure among the crowd, pick out a countenance that might please me. A connoisseur’s certainty is emerging from the young man I’ve been, and long-unused tendencies are re-awakening. I shan’t go for the first good thing on offer. I’ll reject one, hesitate over another, suppose a third takes my fancy for a moment but reject her too. This one’s too made-up, that one has a suspicious-looking pallor, there’s a coarseness about this one’s mouth, and that one’s eyes are not luscious enough. I must find the finest fragrance, the best there may be.
A serious-looking woman is standing in front of me, and not for the first time. Her figure’s faultless and full, her features pure and refined, almost noble. At the same time she looks good -natured and friendly. She’s wearing no powder and her lips are unstained. Her dress is simple and dark, and her velvet muff has an innocent blue violet pinned to it.
She’s not joining in the dance and she doesn’t seem to have friends with her. Once she walks in front of me and brushes me with her elbow, apparently without noticing. She disappears in the crowd and I turn again to observe the dancers. But when the music stops and the throng disperses, there she is again behind me, and when I pass her she looks me straight in the face, and I can see her eyes are large, and they seem more beautiful than any I’ve ever seen.
She goes off, but now it’s I following her. Perhaps she isn’t one of the regulars, after all; perhaps she’s just here by chance. And I conjure up an adventure for myself – one finer than usual – with a Parisienne, such as I’ve so often read about in novels.
I don’t take my eyes off her, and when she stops, I stop behind her.
Easily, with no further ado, she turns to me and asks:
‘You’re not dancing then!’
‘Sorry, I don’t.’
‘Neither do I. So perhaps you’d be so kind as to offer me a drink?’
She takes my arm, and we sit down at a small table near the wall of the dance hall. I ask her what she’d like.
She feels thirsty and would just like some beer.
After the waiter goes off with the order a silence ensues. I dig out my cigarettes and offer her one as well. She takes one but doesn’t want it lit. She tucks it away in her bosom and says she prefers to smoke at home.
‘You’ll come back home with me tonight, won’t you?’
When I say yes, she presses her knee against mine under the table and drinks to my health.
‘Ah, how thirsty I am!’ And she empties almost half a pint at one draught.
‘You’re very nice. I like you’ she says. ‘Will you spend the whole night with me, or what?’
‘The whole night.’
She empties her glass and we leave. The sad, raucous waltz starts up again.
As I ascend the broad staircase I see the black crowd swaying into movement once more. Across the room I can see the musicians’ platform, the bowings of the violinists, the arms of the conductor.
Why do I suddenly feel like weeping again? Why am I feeling everything so rendingly sad? And what’s making me long to go far away from here?
But she’s sort of curled up against me, and she doesn’t let go of my arm even as she’s collecting her umbrella from the cloakroom.
Outside rain has begun. At the door she flips open her umbrella, gives it to me to hold and, raising the hem of her skirt with her right hand, holds my arm with her left.
The rain’s a fine drizzle. It hasn’t caused any actual puddles, but mud’s being sprayed everywhere, making every step slippery. The street lights and the moving lights of the carriages are reflected in the wet street, as if in a calm canal. The horses’ hooves clack as if on wet ice.
Movement’s a bit ungainly, sharing the same umbrella. She leads the whole time, pulling me along. I ask if she lives far away, but she reassures me:
‘Very near, very near!’ On one street corner she wants me to kiss her.
‘Kiss me, mon ami!’
I kiss her a little awkwardly, but her cheek has a strange fineness, her skin feels soft against my lips, and I kiss her again without being asked.
And simultaneously the gas lamp is casting light and shadow past the edges of her hat, and, as she looks up at me, I seem to catch a glimpse of Anna’s features – the same cheek, the same curl by her ear.
Hearing me moving about she wakes at once.
‘Are you off already?’ she asks.
She seems somehow uneasy; she follows my every movement as I get dressed, resting her head on her elbow. And once I’ve got my overcoat on and am brushing my hat, she can no longer resist asking:
‘You’re not thinking of leaving without giving me a little present?’
When she hears the gold clinking on the stove, she does rise, reaches for her slippers, gathers a gown round herself and comes to show me out. At the door, she offers herself for a kiss, but I resist it, and she doesn’t press me. We’ve both had enough of each other.
Outside it’s a bright, cold Christmas morning. From a neighbouring church comes the ringing of bells.
‘Merry Christmas!’ says my concierge, encountering me on the stairway to my room.
From my window I can see the whole of early-morning Paris, and the roofs and church cupolas are glittering.
Mechanically I hasten to get washed, put something clean on and settle down to get some rest.
And as I lounge there, staring out at the roof, the ice-cold clear mood I recently felt with the woman is lingering on. There’s a sweet lassitude in my body, and I comfortably stretch my limbs, which feel supple and pleasantly indolent. The blood’s flowing so peacefully and calmly in my veins, which feel sluiced, cleansed of some sludge. ‘Pooh!’ I say mentally to Anna once more. ‘So that’s how it was. The roots didn’t go down very deep after all!’ I say it aloud: I want to hear how it sounds. And actually there’s no reservation in my voice.
So be satisfied! That’s how life is! Accept it as it’s given to you!
And lying there on my back between clean sheets freshly changed for Christmas, I sketch coldly, calmly and with a mixture of irony and disdain, an equitable picture of my future. It’s a colourless, arid image, drawn with straight lines, as if by a ruler – like my present state of mind.
There’s a bachelor flat, containing a large desk, which holds papers in good order, and a bookcase filled with books. There’s a leather sofa with a worn cushion in one corner for the bachelor’s post-prandial snooze. An iron bed. Cigarette smoke in the room. At school one wears well-brushed clothes. At home there’s a low-dragging dressing-gown and some slippers. An elderly woman does the housework. Most evenings one is at a restaurant, where one seriously discusses questions of the day and inclines towards conservatism. It’s safest, after all. At a certain hour of the clock one goes homewards. One reads some book before going to bed. On the wall near the bed there’s a yellowed laurel wreath, a memento of one’s master’s degree. But without a picture of a woman-friend who might have woven the celebratory wreath for the graduate, à la tradition. In the summer one lives on a lonely island and fishes.
There it is, there’s no more than that to it. And not a single dream stirs to transcend it, or offer any hope. My life’s horizon seems to be both brightening and growing more chilly. I myself am icing up, shrinking. Total desolation envelops me, bells of hollow loneliness are ringing in my ears. And I suppose myself ready to accept the non-existence life is offering me. And I turn to the wall to sleep.
But then I start sensing in my sheets a whiff of the bed I left this morning, her hair, her skin, and her room. She wants to draw nearer me, she strives to caress, kiss and embrace me.
And in a flash my recent mood is overturned and the perspective it brought. Disgust fills my heart with nausea and sickens my mind, and I shiver all over. I love her again – Anna: I love her still more madly, still more hopelessly than ever. From the depths of my being I’m calling out for her, wanting her to come through that door, to throw herself down beside me, to cleanse me with kisses, renew me with embraces. I’d tell her everything all this, as if it were a bad nightmare. She’d forgive me and I’d start my life all over again.
But she’s not coming. Those footsteps on the stairway, they’re not hers. It’s a person like myself, who stops at his door and whose key I hear turning in the lock.
Why can’t she let me have peace even in the grave? Why can’t I rid myself of her, forget her, brush her aside like many other disappointed hopes? Why can’t I deliver myself from her through pleasure and the independence isolation brings? Why can’t I chill off into nonchalance?
But it’s vain to ask. I feel I mustn’t, and that I can’t. Maybe she’ll fade from my mind for a moment or two, perhaps even for a whole evening and night. But these remorselessly actual and indisputable unyielding morning moments, they’ll always be there. The same feelings will recur, the same wretched longing, the same consuming, lacerating yearning. Wherever I live, wherever I look for comfort and forgetfulness, no matter – I shall always be groping to find Anna at my side, where she won’t be. I did try to extinguish her image, efface her face… always, through the watermark, I’ll be seeing a pure profile and a curl over an ear.
Translated by Herbert Lomas. First published in Books from Finland 1/2006
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